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North Carolina Prisoner Escapes to Flee Coronavirus Death Sentence

Fearing his existing medical condition could transform his sentence to death if he caught COVID-19, federal prisoner Richard Cephas elected to escape. After nearly a month on the run, Cephas turned himself in on April 20, 2020, resulting in a new charge for the escape.

Cephas was a prisoner at the Federal Prison Complex in Butner, North Carolina. He worked as an orderly, so he was aware the prison lacked soap for prisoners to wash their hands frequently. Prisoners were told they should use soap they purchased. Gloves and masks were not issued until five days after Cephas escaped. The prison’s layout makes social distancing virtually impossible.

Cephas says he suffers from neutropenia, a medical condition that makes him more susceptible to COVID-19 because his body struggles to create sufficient white blood cells to combat infections. Butner officials reported the prison’s first positive coronavirus case on March 26, 2020. As the numbers grew and Cephas received no reply to requests to be released on home confinement, he became more fearful for his life.

“I take ownership of having to serve my time,” said Cephas, who had 18 months to serve on a 66-month sentence on a drug conviction when he escaped. “I signed up for a jail sentence, not a death sentence.”

Part of Cephas’ duties as an orderly was to take the trash out. Around 9:30 p.m. April 2, Cephas included some of his belongings in the bag. He removed his items, put the trash in the bin, tossed his stuff over a fence, and climbed over. It took him six hours to get to Durham. He said he was staying in an abandoned house, which kept him from receiving the bi-weekly shot to counteract the neutropenia.

“I’m running a risk both ways, but I’d rather risk a run away from there than sitting in the middle of a petri dish knowing I’d be the first to perish,” Cephas said. “I want to turn myself in;  that was my intent from day one, to make public awareness of what’s going on the inside and so some of these guys can get out and not die in there.”

After Cephas fled Butner, coronavirus ran rampant through the prison. As of April 20, 2020, Butner had reported that 65 prisoners and 27 staff members tested positive for COVID-19. Five prisoners died. All but one had preexisting medical issues, prison officials said.

Cephas, 54, turned himself in at a Delaware courthouse. He was to be returned to North Carolina to face the escape charge.

“I have to be honest, I don’t feel I should get time for escaping from prison,” said Cephas. “If it wasn’t for COVID, I would have never left.” 


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